The tough call of riding the talents of Wendell Smallwood versus riding him right into the ground is probably the toughest game management decision the West Virginia coaching staff is facing right now. After carrying the ball 24 times against Texas, head coach Dana Holgorsen reiterated that he has to avoid overusing WVU's most productive offensive player, lest he be unavailable in future games. That sparks consideration from several angles.
First, Smallwood's workload, while appreciable, doesn't approach some of the highest usage rates in Mountaineer history. He's averaging 18.5 carries per game, but hasn't carried it more than 24 times in any one game this year, and has topped the 20 mark just five times. He did have the nasty ankle sprain that limited him in mid-year, but to his credit he fought through that and didn't miss a contest – although it likely limited the number of touches he received. That should remove any doubts as to his toughness, and offset the “players were tougher in the old days” thinking. Those players also didn't take the number of hits that today's players do, given the greater number of plays per game. The force of many of those hits is also probably greater, given the bigger and faster physical properties of today's defensive players.
Also contributing to the wear and tear factor is the nature of Smallwood's runs. He takes (and delivers) hits on every play. It's tough to get an appreciation for that from the stands or on TV, but from my spot on the sidelines, I can attest that those things are loud – and violent. Smallwood doesn't get the chance to run out of bounds or avoid contact – he's in the mixer on every play. From that vantage point, he's taking many more hits than just the ones where he carries the ball.
On the flip side, Smallwood told us that he has never felt better than after the Texas game, and that the work schedule he's currently on isn't wearing him out. Of course, any player with his mindset is going to say that, and isn't going to admit to wearing down, but this still supports the way in which Holgorsen is using him. Still, would 4-5 more runs make a difference? He has caught just 21 passes this season – not a reflection of his ability, by the way, just a change in the way he’s used – so he’s only getting a couple of more hits per contests as a result of pass receptions. As noted at the top, it's a tough call, and something to watch in the last three regular season games. Hopefully the Mountaineers can get control of the Kansas game early and give him a bit more of a break.
* * * * *
Listen to the coaches discuss their philosophy with running back rotations, and invariable you’ll hear ‘We’re going to ride the hot hand’ pop up. No argument with that approach, but will it extend to the offensive line?
WVU has run the ball for 557 yards combined in the past two games – the best two-game stretch of the year. The offensive line seems to be playing with a bit more cohesion. Even when factoring in the bad defense of Texas Tech, it looks like the current unit of Marquis Lucas, Adam Pankey, Tyler Orlosky, Kyle Bosch and Marcell Lazard are playing the best of any group the Mountaineers have fielded this season. So, would the coaching staff mess with success if Yodny Cajuste is able to play?
This decision could be made for them, as it’s by no means certain that the redshirt freshman will be able to return from the toe injury that has kept him out of the lineup for the past three weeks. But if he is, should he return in a starting role?
The view from here is that if he is available for duty, he’ll be used as a backup, just as Tony Matteo has been at guard. He’ll come in and give Lucas a break, and when Lazard needs a rest, Lucas will jump over to the right side. The rotation, if there is one, is certainly another item to watch throughout the game.
* * * * *
Kansas junior kicker Mathew Wyman joined an exclusive club last week when he was the sole specialist on the field for all of the Jayhawk kicking duties. And he didn’t just fill the roles, he excelled. He averaged 43.4 yards on 11 punts, made two extra points and a 42-yard field goal, and also kicked off four times with three touchbacks. He is the only kicker from a Power Five conference to handle every boot this year, joining players from Texas State, Hawai’i and Idaho.
* * * * *
West Virginia held Texas Tech to just 26 points – its lowest output of the season. Kansas held the Red Raiders to 30. Does that comparison mean a lot? Sometimes such comparative stats do yield fodder for analysis, but in this case it seems misleading. The Jayhawks have yielded at least 38 points in seven of their ten games, and their other two contests below that mark were against Rutgers and injury-riddled TCU. While there’s no arguing with the fact that KU continues to play hard, it looks more like that was a day in which Tech simply didn’t play well.
* * * * *
Kansas is very young, and it’s by design. In attempting to recover from the Charlie Weis era, in which the ego-ballooning head coach tried to rebuild quickly with jucos of questionable ability, KU head coach David Beaty is starting at the bottom. The Jayhawks have 39 players who have made their initial appearance in red and blue this year, including 33 first-time starters. Ten of those are true or redshirt freshmen. No other school has more first time appearances in 2015.
Making things even more difficult is a spate of injuries, starting at quarterback, that have thrust more players into starting roles. Had KU been able to consistently field the same players each week, progress might have been greater – they might have even been able to sneak out a win. However, those hurts, in addition to the natural winnowing process that happens as youngsters either prove their ability to play or get move aside, has seen Kansas put 46 different starters on the field this year. At quarterback, that list includes four players, two of whom are walk-ons.
While this process is clearly painful, it’s a reasonable path to a brighter future, assuming better talent can be lured to Lawrence. The freshmen and sophomores who are getting thumped today will be much more salty a year or two down the road. The question is, will the Kansas administration be patient enough to let the process play out?